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Ursula K. Le Guin's 'The Lathe of Heaven'

Fiftieth Anniversary 1971-2021

By K.E. LanningPublished 3 years ago 6 min read
Original Hardcover of Lathe of Heaven - 1971

Ursula K. Le Guin’s novels defy classification as to whether they are speculative fiction or simply literary fantasy—her exquisite prose creating rich tapestries, surreal dreams of plot and character, woven with fierce threads of social and philosophic commentary.

The Lathe of Heaven was published in 1971, following her blockbuster success with her 1969 novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, but Le Guin’s writing career began in the late 1950’s, strongly influenced by cultural anthropology, Taoism, feminism, and the writings of Carl Jung.

The title, The Lathe of Heaven, is taken from the writings of Chuang Tzu (Zhuang Zhou), a passage from Book XXIII, paragraph 7, quoted as an epigraph to Chapter 3 of the novel:

“To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven.”

Le Guin chose the title because she loved the quotation. However, it seems that the quote is a mistranslation of Chuang Tzu's Chinese text. In an interview with Bill Moyers recorded for the 2000 DVD release of the 1980 adaptation, Le Guin clarified the issue:

“...it's a terrible mistranslation apparently, I didn't know that at the time. There were no lathes in China at the time that that was said. Joseph Needham wrote me and said "It's a lovely translation, but it's wrong."

Regardless of the misinterpretation of the original text, the title stands as a singularly powerful concept.

The Lathe of Heaven

The story is set in Portland, Oregon, in 2002, in a world devastated by global warming, poverty due to overpopulation, and Middle East wars. The protagonist, George Orr, is a draftsman who abuses drugs in an attempt to stifle his ability to dream—he has discovered, to his abject terror, that when he dreams “effective” dreams, they alter reality; however, he is the only one who recalls the previous reality. Because of his illegal drug abuse, he is forced to undergo “voluntary” psychiatric care under a psychiatrist and sleep specialist named William Haber. Haber discovers that he can influence George’s dreams and becomes a type of puppet master over him, manipulating reality to “save the world”, but also enhance Haber’s wealth and status. Under Haber’s machine, the Augmentor, he uses George’s power to “do good” but he cannot control George’s dreams, and bizarre, twisted realities ensue. George realizes Haber’s dubious plan and enlists a lawyer, Heather Lelache, to represent him against Haber’s scheme, with limited success as reality continues to be altered, including her own existence.

The novel was initially serialized in the American science fiction magazine Amazing Stories. The novel received nominations for the 1971 Nebula Award, the 1972 Hugo, and won the Locus Award for Best Novel in 1972. The novel was adapted to film by PBS and released in 1980 with Le Guin involved in the production of the adaptation. A second adaptation was released in 2002; however discarding a significant portion of the story.

Ursula K. Le Guin

Born Ursula Kroeber in Berkeley, California, 1929, she grew up on the Pacific Coast, immersed in anthropologic worlds through her father, tales handed down through her family, and classic literature. Le Guin graduated from Radcliffe in 1951, married historian Charles Le Guin in 1953 and they had three children, Elisabeth, Caroline, and Theodore. In 1959, the family settled in Portland as their permanent residence.

During an interview with Mark Wilson, Le Guin discusses her early influences: “Once I learned to read, I read everything. I read all the famous fantasies – Alice in Wonderland, and Wind in the Willows, and Kipling. I adored Kipling's Jungle Book. And then when I got older I found Lord Dunsany. He opened up a whole new world – the world of pure fantasy. And ... Worm Ouroboros. Again, pure fantasy. Very, very fattening. And then my brother and I blundered into science fiction when I was 11 or 12. Early Asimov, things like that. But that didn't have too much effect on me. It wasn't until I came back to science fiction and discovered Sturgeon – but particularly Cordwainer Smith. ...I read the story Alpha Ralpha Boulevard, and it just made me go, "Wow! This stuff is so beautiful, and so strange, and I want to do something like that."

In the 1960s, Le Guin found her voice through science fiction, publishing her first novel, A Wizard of Earthsea in 1966. By 1970, she had won the Hugo and Nebula awards for The Left Hand of Darkness [1969] an exquisite novel exploring gender and the concept of “otherness”. In the year following, Robert Heinlein published his novel, I Will Fear No Evil [1970] exploring male and female sexuality, but he never crossed the boundary into the deconstruction of gender like Le Guin's brilliant concept in The Left Hand of Darkness—the idea that gender is not absolute, but ephemeral. Jo Walton at Tor Books wrote a lovely article on The Left Hand of Darkness and Le Guin: Gender and glacier: Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness

With multiple awards in her literary career, Le Guin is considered one of the greatest speculative fiction writers of all time. Over her career, she received numerous accolades, including eight Hugos, six Nebulas, and twenty-two Locus Awards, and in 2003 became the second woman honored as a Grand Master of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. In 2000, the U.S. Library of Congress named her a Living Legend, and she won the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2014. Le Guin has influenced many other authors, including Booker Prize winner Salman Rushdie, David Mitchell, Neil Gaiman, and Iain Banks. After her death in 2018, critic John Clute wrote that Le Guin had "presided over American science fiction for nearly half a century", and author Michael Chabon referred to her as the "greatest American writer of her generation".

Ursula K. Le Guin, photo credit Jack Liu

In 2016, Julie Phillips wrote a superb article on Le Guin for the New Yorker: The Fantastic Ursula K. Le Guin, including an intimate conversation with Le Guin at her Portland home.

Le Guin died on January 22, 2018 at the age of 88, but her literary heritage will continue to influence, be it bur or spur, on our society. I leave you with a prescient quote from Ursula K. Le Guin in 2014:

“I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.”

—Ursula K. Le Guin

Many thanks to Wikipedia for background of Ursula K. Le Guin and to interviewers: Mark Wilson, Jo Walton of TOR, and writer Julie Phillips, contributor to The New Yorker.

K.E. Lanning, author of THE MELT TRILOGY: A Spider Sat Beside Her, The Sting of the Bee, and Listen to the Birds; and her upcoming novel: Where the Sky Meets the Earth.

book review

About the Creator

K.E. Lanning

Author of commercial literary and speculative fiction. www.kelanning.com, @kelanningauthor, https://www.facebook.com/KELanning1/ https://www.instagram.com/kelanningauthor/

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